Cover to Cover

T he Institute Library, founded as the Apprentices’ Literary Association in 1826, has occupied the same narrow Chapel Street building since 1878. Its stairs are grooved by countless footfalls, its catalog cards softened by countless fingers. Unlike public libraries, which cull books that don’t get checked out or have become obsolete, the Institute proudly hangs on to most. As a result, you never know what old and nearly forgotten tomes you’ll find there.

For Cover Story: In Praise of the Exterior Surface, the library’s first exhibition since its reopening this month, resident curator Martha Willette Lewis has chosen more than 170 books to display based solely on their covers and titles. Through them, Cover Story tells a tale of the classics and has-beens and the treasures and missteps to be found in the library’s collection and celebrates the tactile pleasure of books in a digital age.

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You may not be able to judge a book by its cover—who knows, for example, what could possibly be written inside the simple red covers of a book titled Calm Yourself!?—but you can judge the cover itself. Lewis and gallery intern Ava Hathaway Hacker have sorted the books into some general categories. One long case displays books stereotyping men—Hell-Fire Harrison, The Cheerful Smugglers, Stover at Yale—and women—Pink Magic, The Slim Princess, Rose in Bloom. While most of these tend toward the amusing, Lewis hasn’t shied away from including more disturbing covers in the exhibition as well.

On the cover of Lady of the Mohawks by Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Widdemer, subtitled “The Story of a Romance that Safeguarded Our Nation,” a red-caped Hollywood hero type standing in for the British soldier Sir William Johnson embraces his sleek, dark-haired lover in a buckskin dress—Johnson’s historic bride “Molly,” who coyly raises one foot behind her as she gazes lovingly into his eyes. Behind the couple, a fellow in a tricorn hat ponders trouble as bare-chested Native Americans race their horses through the background. The cover of Jungle Gods by Carl von Hoffman depicts a cartoonish African man shouting, one hand raised, with a single acacia tree in the background of the woodcut-style image. “I think there’s value in looking at that,” Lewis says of the dated covers that run from humorous to horrifying. “I think it’s okay to laugh at it a little bit,” she says of kitschy covers like Lady of the Mohawks, “but it’s also important to take it seriously and realize that some of this is hurtful to people.”

Much of the exhibition comprises random books about seafaring and gardens and families and pets by authors whose names ring no bell. But among them are classics like Herman Melville’s Typee, its cover illustrated with a simple stamp of a ship, prow forward, its sails embossed in gold, and Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, wrapped in a crinkly plastic library cover that illustrates the mighty Titanic about to meet its fated iceberg. The cover of Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail, one of about 40 oversized prints of book covers included in the exhibition, depicts a fantastical hot air balloon with propellers flying through a star-studded, cloud-curlicued sky. Among four Jack London volumes is a striking maroon cover embossed in coral pink lighting up a cityscape that draws the reader into The Scarlet Plague. Two volumes by Shirley Jackson—Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, both with cheerful domestic covers alluding to the comedic stories within about her own family’s adventures—are a reminder that the author of the short story “The Lottery” could write more than horror.

Visitors to Cover Story aren’t exactly encouraged to browse, but you can run your finger over the covers of some of these books to feel the embossed designs and the warp and weft of their fabric covers, with bits of thread fraying at the edges. “You’re meant to be drawn to [it] and to want to pick it up and to hold it,” Lewis says as we look over one display table of quirky finds, all of them sized to be held comfortably in your hands for a long afternoon of reading. What you are encouraged to do, as the library’s press release puts it, is “frivolously, shallowly, pick your favorites.” Covers will be posted on Facebook and Twitter for virtual visitors to enjoy, and votes via “likes” will be tallied to choose the winners.

As old and quirky as the books in Cover Story are, the Institute—Connecticut’s oldest independent circulating library—also keeps its collection current. New titles include Deesha Philyaw’s 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award-winner The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Roya Hakakian’s A Beginner’s Guide to America and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. First-time library members pay $25 a year for the privilege of checking out books both new and old and using the library space. Members also earn discounted admission to events such as readings and Friday Happy Hour Jazz. Higher membership levels at $60 and $125 include bonus benefits.

In addition to highlighting the Institute’s eclectic collection, Cover Story is a reminder of a bygone era of publishing. As an artist, Lewis herself has worked on book covers and has seen firsthand the changes in the industry. “They don’t spend money the way that they used to,” she says. Stock art is chosen over original work and digital processes have crowded out manual ones. “You’ll see the same things over and over again. They’re trying to do things on a low budget.” Wraparound cover images, embossed fabric covers, hand-printed covers—all are rare finds today. That’s not to say, Lewis adds, that everything has changed for the worse. As compared to a century ago, she points out, books today are printed with more color images inside, and “you still see some really lovely, carefully put together novels… but that’s increasingly difficult.” It’s the latest chapter in the long story of book covers.

Cover Story: In Praise of the Exterior Surface
Institute Library – 847 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues & Thurs 11am-3pm, Fri 4-5:30pm, Sat noon-2pm through June 1
(203) 562-4045

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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